“I just wish I could get settled,” my mother would say. And then she’d move.
That year, we knew immediately: we would not be settled.
That year—September 1966 to June 1967, nine months of gestation for leave-takings—remains in my memory as absolutely distinct, sharply delineated, set aside, removed, a parenthetical caught between dashes in an already stop-and-start sentence, and at the same time hazed over, difficult to decipher, with most of the words blurred or blotted.
That year: a scant photo album with its handful of pictures and a small stack of sound recordings. I recognize myself in the snapshots, recognize my mother, Miss Keefe, Miss Moore, Miz Bush, the college president who referred to me only as “Daughter” (“How is Daughter today?”), and I recognize the dusty town, the small campus, the house we lived in, the falling-down high school. I hear the high school civics teacher saying, “You was up chere talkin’ about—what was it you was talkin’ about, from the New York Times?”; the gym/health teacher intent on instilling in teenage girls the exact radii of possible injury from bomb fallout; the French teacher who every day without fail entered with a flourish and announced as on the first day of battle, “Chantons la Marseillaise!”
My mother, a singer, was not singing a battle song, though she felt always embattled. Any day of victory that might come was hedged round with doubts and qualifications.
That year, we lived, my mother and I, in two adjoining rooms, having consistently downsized since she and I had arrived in Chapel Hill in 1961, the year of my parents’ official separation: first, the rambling rental house (they were all rentals), then a decent, average-sized house (average for a family; we had boarders), then a duplex apartment, now our two rooms. After that, I would live in a three-person dorm room, and my mother—well, she would barely stay still.
The two rooms were on the second floor of an old brick mansion, on the campus of Greenbrier College in Lewisburg, West Virginia, where my mother had taken a job teaching voice and directing the chorus. We took our meals—at least dinner and Sunday lunch, also called dinner—with the students in the school’s dining hall, where we sat at an assigned table with some six girls. Fried chicken was the most edible item on the menu, and it was served on Sunday and on at least one weekday evening. I have not eaten fried chicken since.
The girls attending Greenbrier were completing their last two years of high school and embarking on their first two years of college, which were likely to be their only years of so-called higher education. Greenbrier was in fact a form of finishing school, already anachronistic in 1966, when my mother and I arrived and felt very nearly finished ourselves. Almost from the moment we moved in to our faculty dormitory, my mother realized how drab and confined a life she’d sentenced us to.
Exile, forcible resettlement: that’s what that year felt like to both of us.
August 1966: I’d just spent my allotted five weeks of summer with my father in New York, and my mother and I were walking along the beach near her brother’s house on the Jersey Shore—he was rich, in our eyes —when she told me she’d taken a job. Not in Chapel Hill. Not near Chapel Hill. In West Virginia. She was sorry, we’d have to move, in less than a month. I must have looked appalled by the news. I was not quite 14.
My mother stopped walking and gazed out at the ocean. “Oh, Martha,” she said, “Martha, what did you expect? I finished my master’s, I need a job.”
I’d heard her talk about finding a teaching position for at least a year, but I hadn’t thought much about what it would mean if she found one. I did not want to leave Chapel Hill. I did not want to leave my friends. In only five years I’d become very attached to our life there, even when it was disrupted by moving house. I was extremely attached to my cat. At least I’d see her soon.
“How is Snow White?” I asked, sniffling, wiping away my tears.
“She’s fine,” my mother said. She began walking again.
“I really missed her,” I said.
She stopped again. “She really is fine. I—I found her a good home.”
I’m sure I was sobbing now. “A home?”
“Look, Martha,” she said, “we just can’t have any pets where we’ll be living, I asked, I tried,” my mother said. “We have to live in this place. You have to understand. I had no choice.”
That year, she would repeat this statement—“I had no choice”—many times.
In 1966, the odds of a 57-year-old divorced woman’s landing any sort of academic job were not good.
My mother had gone back to school at the University of North Carolina in her early 50s. In seeking a teaching job she was, I think, rather desperate to convince herself that pursuing her master’s degree in music had been worthwhile. She also, perhaps with equal desperation, wanted to prove that she could earn her own money so as not to be dependent upon my father’s alimony and child support. (Never mind that in her eighties, she would ask me to ask my father to send her money each month.) The Greenbrier position was the only one she’d been offered. She believed she had to take it. No choice, as she insisted.
In fact, she had settled—settled for an even deeper unsettling than we’d known before.
Did she have a choice in our living arrangement? I never knew. Our accommodations may have been a stipulation of her contract, or perhaps a strongly urged recommendation (“We like our faculty to be able to participate fully in the life of the college”). Maybe they were simply offered as a suggestion. Whatever the case, living on the campus meant, first, that my mother would not have to look for a place for us to live; even more significant, since she was constantly and volubly worried about money, she’d have no rent to pay, and, with us eating meals in the dining hall, she’d save considerably on food. Earn and save: this was a large part of her bargain, a bargain that turned out to be double-edged.
“Poor Martha,” my mother would say, “stuck here with a bunch of old ladies and rich girls and a falling-down high school.” There was, I could hear even then, an echo of “Poor me” in such statements of pity. Well-deserved, I must say.
That year, we shared the big rambling house with Miss Moore, Miss Keefe, and Miz Bush, all of whom my mother referred to in private as old-lady schoolteachers. She probably feared becoming an old-lady schoolteacher herself. In fact, only three of the house’s five inhabitants were teachers at the school: my mother; Miss Moore, who taught Spanish, rarely looked up, spoke quickly, and tended to scurry; and Miss Keefe, the only resident of the ground floor, who boomed when she spoke, strode when she walked, wore print dresses whose bodices, filled with her ample bosom, sloped down to overwhelm an invisible waist, and taught The Drama. Miz Bush—there was no other way to pronounce the honorific—was the college dietician, who lived across the landing from us, moved with a weighty, almost clumsy slowness, and talked just as slowly in not-quite sweet, syrupy tones. She came, she wanted everyone to know, from Chattanooga and liked to keep the house, not warm, but hot. She’d turn up the heat in the house, and my mother would turn it down. No compromise was ever reached.
I never learned Miss Moore’s, Miss Keefe’s, or Miz Bush’s first names; I never learned their stories. I don’t even know how long they’d lived in the house before we arrived, though it seemed to me then as if they’d been there for eons at least.
As for the school my mother accurately described as falling down: This was the local high school, where I, along with perhaps two other students, was something of an anomaly—someone from elsewhere. A university town like Chapel Hill and, most certainly, the fabled city of New York might as well have been other planets. Lewisburg High immediately struck me in much the same way, so ill-funded that it had no cafeteria—we ate our lunches arrayed on the bleachers in the gym. A number of classrooms and the locker rooms were housed in the damp, dank, low-ceilinged basement, all gray as I remember it, another forceful indicator to me of impoverishment. There, we girls changed in and out of our royal blue rompers and, after gym class, were required to shower, all of us together. Removing our itty-bitty towels and trying to shield our adolescent bodies under the tepid sprays, we were watched beadily, greedily, by the gym teacher. This was the same teacher who conducted health class, also in the basement, threatened us with the horrors of radiation, and announced the bodily areas where we’d sweat most profusely.
That spring’s high school production was The Sound of Music. I was an expert, I thought, in all things Julie Andrews and well versed in the musical, at least the movie version. And I was eager to perform. I auditioned by reading lines in a British accent as close to Andrews’s as I could muster and pretending I could sing, which took more courage than I usually displayed. We performed twice in, yes, the gym, and my only solo line, as one of the von Trapp children, was in “So Long, Farewell,” something I knew by that time I’d be saying soon to the high school and Lewisburg and Greenbrier and West Virginia.
Only recently have I realized that our living situation symbolized, perhaps too perfectly, my relation to my mother and hers to me, at least up until the end of that year. At Greenbrier, not only were we separated from everything else we’d accepted as familiar; we were necessarily—think of the adjoining two rooms–even more closely tethered together than before, the boundaries between us blurred and porous.
The tether would loosen soon enough, the borders begin to close.
A secret: My mother told me I was not to mention my father to anyone, at least not anyone at Greenbrier. “He can’t visit you here. Don’t even hint at his existence. It’s just not a good idea.”
I was proud of my father; his theatrical career could be a kind of calling card for me. So of course I asked, “Why not?”
“Because—well, I don’t think a divorced woman would be very welcome on this campus.”
“What about when he calls on Sundays?”
The only telephone in the house sat on the landing outside our rooms and rarely rang. “I don’t want Miz Bush or Miss Moore”—neither of us could imagine Miss Keefe dashing up the staircase when the phone rang; we couldn’t imagine Miss Keefe dashing, period—“to pick up the phone if he calls. Just tell him you’ll call him. And you’ll have to reverse the charges. I can’t have them asking me what these calls to New York are.”
“So what will you tell them?”
Here she gave her habitual what-does-it matter shrug. “I’ll just let them think I’m a widow.”
Every evening, the rounded, dramatically projected tones of Miss Keefe, signaling like a church bell the end of the day, rose from the bottom of the stairs. She would call up, penetrating our closed doors: “Mrs. Wiseman” (she pronounced it “Weissman,” with a lingering on the “s” sound in the middle), “oh, Mrs. Wiseman, are you in?” Where else would we be? my mother might have said softly; but she’d come out to the landing and call down, “Yes, we’re in,” to which Miss Keefe would respond with almost a lilt of enthusiasm, “Well, then, I’ll lock up,” stressing “lock” as a rising note, and our ample, by now uncorseted guard would stride to the front door and turn the lock.
We were well and truly locked in.
That year, I must have been trying to keep myself busy. I taught myself to type on a borrowed Royal typewriter and wrote long missives to my friends in Chapel Hill. With a sewing machine, also borrowed, I attempted a far too ambitious olive-green corduroy skirt and jacket and was handily defeated. I took lessons with the college’s piano teacher, a high-strung young woman who demanded shrilly that I relax when I played. From time to time, with Miss Keefe’s permission—the television, mostly unused, lived in a corner of a large ground-floor parlor abutting the drama teacher’s room—I watched Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. Perhaps I imagined myself a well-known actor in the plays I saw. I say “Perhaps,” because I do not remember. I remember only sitting on the floor with an expanse of carpet behind me and gazing up at the screen.
My mother called “Good night” across the short passageway between our rooms. Then came her suite of heavy sighs, and her light went out. I lay in my bed and pretended to be Rhett Butler’s second wife. I’d recently read Gone with the Wind, which I found silly, but I was charmed for some reason by Rhett. My mother had said, “Why do you want to read all that nostalgic antebellum stuff? It’s very prejudiced. Still, I suppose it’s a classic….” (She’d been after me since second grade to read the classics.) I did not know what “antebellum” meant—I heard it as “anti-belle-m.” I thought maybe it had to do with an aversion to Southern belles. I would be no belle, no Scarlett, but a solace to my husband. I spoke under my breath to him, so my mother wouldn’t hear, soothing him, reassuring him. I must have been trying to mend the rupture with his previous wife, or at least make up for it.
Now I imagine my mother in our Greenbrier year lying in her heavy wood-framed bed across the passageway from me. Perhaps she lay awake, asking herself the same questions over and over, questions I too was familiar with, for she often spoke to me of her chronic concerns in the daytime: How did she end up in God-forsaken Lewisburg, teaching rich, preoccupied girls to care about music? How had she lost my father? How had she lost herself? And how did she end up so alone? Then she’d add, Except for you, Martha. I have you.
When she dreamed, she must have dreamed of flight—from these rooms, this job, this place.
She was plotting our escape.
First, our practice runs:
About 10 miles from the poor town of Lewisburg, White Sulphur Springs was home to the grand Greenbrier Inn and Resort. My mother discovered—leave it to her—that one day a week the Greenbrier served afternoon tea, which, according to my mother, was open to the public.
“Are you sure?” I asked her. I had a terror of being caught.
“Well, they serve tea to all their guests, and who’s to say we’re not guests?”
“But we’re not. I mean, we won’t be.”
“Don’t be so timid, Martha! Don’t you love a proper English tea?” Did I? I loved all things British, yes, but high tea was something I’d only read about.
Despite my qualms, I went along as I tended to do, and nobody questioned us (I kept looking around), and we took tea there in the Greenbrier’s large, luxurious, high-ceilinged rooms set in greening, well-tended gardens: my mother’s notion of just deserts in appropriately dessert form. A brief respite, then back to our rooms.
A slightly more extensive escape, taking us further from Lewisburg: on occasional weekends my mother drove us to Lynchburg, Virginia, to see dance and theater performances, and to Charlottesville, to walk round the campus and have a meal, the two of us on minor holiday.
The plans for our final extrication from Greenbrier, or for its exorcism from us, were on a much grander scale.
My mother, who moved constantly, claimed she hated moving. But she loved another kind of movement: she loved to travel, and she did so whenever possible, even, or especially, when a trip to France or Italy or Yugoslavia or Hungary seemed impossible, in financial or any other terms. Travel requires an embrace of an at least moderately unsettled state, into which my mother, an otherwise anxious and depressed woman, paradoxically settled with alacrity.
Throughout her life, my mother seemed to have a deep need to escape. That year at Greenbrier gave her a very definite situation to escape from. And so our escape (for I was included) entailed a trip to France and England—our reward, my mother said, for surviving the year. We’d say goodbye to Lewisburg in celebratory style.
My mother wanted the freedom to explore the two countries, but she was afraid of driving tiny cars on unknown foreign roads. She enlisted Harriet, a former fellow graduate student and my one-time piano teacher in Chapel Hill. Harriet had said she wanted to go to Europe but didn’t want to go solo, and she was willing to rent a car and drive. She also admitted that she spoke barely a word of French, and it was true. Further, she would deliver the word or two she did know—Bonjour, Merci— with a ripe, honey-dripping Southern accent. Harriet’s inability to speak the language did not deter my mother. She herself spoke a little Italianate French, but mostly she counted on me to do the required talking—me, with my three years of school French, the results of which were a good accent, not much vocabulary, and a horror of using the wrong verb form.
The three of us sailed away on the Castel Felice, a student ship—cheaper and considerably smaller than a regular ocean liner. My mother insisted the boat trip would be fun for me: lots of young people, plenty of educational activities. I did not point out, if the thought even occurred to me, that the students were in their early twenties or older, undergraduates and graduate students, and thus not exactly easy company for someone not yet 15 and hardly a seeker of “fun.” I was seasick for at least half the ten-day voyage. Harriet flirted. My mother had a wonderful time.
Harriet proved an irritable, whiney, uncurious, and penny-pinching traveling companion, and the trio dissolved upon our arrival in England, where I changed hands—I met my father in London and flew home with him to New York. My mother sailed back to the States on the Queen Elizabeth.
But before our summer’s jaunt, the question of what would happen after the summer had to be contemplated.
My mother had no post-Greenbrier job prospects, and in early spring she began to harp on the uncertainty we faced. “God knows where I’m going to be,” she’d say. “But even if I’m unsettled, which it looks like I will be, you should be settled somehow, Martha. It’s just so unfair to drag you around with me, from one place to another….” She seemed to assume—more or less correctly—that not settling was to be her fate.
Enter the idea of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, a state-supported performing arts school for both high school and college students. opened in 1965. It offered a solution: I would be settled, according to my mother; I could study acting, as I wanted to, or at least believed I wanted to; she wouldn’t have to worry about having to move around or the detrimental effects her situation, or lack thereof, could have on me. In terms of money, she said she’d move back to Chapel Hill and live in her niece’s house to re-establish North Carolina residency, so my tuition, room, and board would be minimal.
Whether my mother and I made the decision about the School of the Arts together or whether she made the decision and I went along with it, I cannot remember. I might not even have known at the time. I found it difficult to distinguish between what I felt and thought and what my mother felt and thought. Or, rather, I found it difficult to know with any certainty what I felt and thought. Perhaps once my mother had brought up the possibility of my going away to a performing-arts school, once the notion had been floated, I could say, Yes, I want to study acting.
Whatever the case, the plan was set in motion, to my mother’s great relief. She arranged for an audition date during my school’s spring break.
For my audition, I chose scenes from two plays I’d neither seen nor read before that spring— / For my audition, I chose a scene from Carson McCullers’s Member of the Wedding and one from The Merchant of Venice. I’d hadn’t seen or read either play before that spring. I took immediately to twelve-year-old Frankie in Member of the Wedding. Somehow I understood her deep yearning to belong, her obsessive excitement, her insistence on leaving her little Southern town forever with her older brother and his bride after their wedding, because “they are the we of me.” She declares passionately, “We will be members of the whole world.” I wanted that, too.
My mother rehearsed with me, reading the other characters, Bernice and the little boy John Henry. We went through the entire scene, not just my speech, and at the end of the scene, my mother as Berenice sang,
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I was surprised by her singing, by her knowing the hymn, and I was strangely comforted. I can see us still, in an empty echoey classroom at the college, my mother oddly earnest, oddly straightforward, her voice clear, without its usual wide vibrato, and me quiet, wondering.
The memory touches me, softens me. Feels bittersweet.
From Merchant of Venice, I chose, notthe “Quality of mercy,” but a speech from what’s known as the casket scene, in which Bassanio chooses the correct little chest and so wins Portia’s hand: “You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, / Such as I am….” Portia indulged in some ironic self-deprecation, which I’m sure I appreciated even at my young age, and she pledges herself and all her worldly goods to Bassanio, with a strict warning against any disloyalty.
Now, I knew nothing of romantic love or of pledging myself to another—and would not for a long, long time. But I did know, from my mother’s grief and her not-so-subtle remarks about my father’s second wife—“That’s the woman who stole your father away from me”—about fidelity and betrayal.
In retrospect, my choice of audition pieces, one Southern, one Shakespearean, seems too neat. My mother was raised in the South and returned there; my father was, as far as might be possible for an American, rooted in the classical theater. It looks very much as if, in trying out for the School of the Arts, I were attempting to join together my mother’s and my father’s worlds.
Or perhaps I was trying out for a new-created world. Trying to belong.
My mother was adamant at first that we keep the NCSA plan a secret from my father. She said she didn’t want to deal with his anger, which she’d long since let me know could be shattering. (The fact was that she didn’t want to deal with anyone’s anger, including her own. If I showed the slightest irritation, she’d wince and say, “Oh, don’t do this to me, Martha. I can’t take it.”) Why would he be angry? I think she worried that he might accuse her of shirking responsibility, sending me away to school so she wouldn’t to have to deal with me. Much later, he would tell me that she had often sought to evade responsibility, that there were other sad instances of such behavior. What he could not explain, even when asked directly, was why, if this was the case, he had agreed to her custody of me all those years before.
In the event, as far as I knew, my father wasn’t angry. He might even have been pleased or proud. I wanted to think so. To my delight, he agreed to help me with my audition. I did Frankie and Portia for him one weekend that spring, in a room at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville. He didn’t say much, only, “Slow down,” and,” Be simple,” and, “Don’t try to sound like Laurence Olivier.”
I auditioned, and I was accepted, and my mother was greatly relieved, and she and I took our European trip. And then, freed from Greenbrier and from our intense daily proximity, we faced a distinct and irrevocable parting. Years later, my mother would say, “If you were so unhappy at the School of the Arts, why didn’t you tell me?” She would say, “You turned against me then. Why was that, Martha?”
I couldn’t explain that the unhappiness—the beginning of many years of chronic depression—would have taken over no matter where I was. I couldn’t explain that once she and I were apart, a kind of fury surged in me. That a rift may well have been necessary for me. She could not have tolerated such explanations.
So I went away to school, and my mother lived in Chapel Hill, then Lynchburg, VA, then Sharon, CT. She built a house in Sharon, lived there for three years, sold it, and moved to Budapest for a year. I pledged myself to acting, graduated from high school, went to a college theater program, gave up acting, and moved to New York to live with my father and stepmother. My mother saw this move as yet another betrayal.
That year in West Virginia, my mother and I reached a border crossing. Then we found ourselves on opposite sides, and we could not cross back again.
Martha Graham Wiseman (she/her/hers) grew up in New York and North Carolina; she has been an acting student, a dancer and choreographer, and an editor. She taught English at Skidmore College until retiring in 2020. Her essays have been published in The Georgia Review, Fish Anthology 2021, Ponder Review, Under the Sun, and The Bookends Review. She has also published fiction and poetry.